Evidence of IPID cover-up mounts, but Joemat-Pettersson declines to act

Tina Joemat-Pettersson (GCIS)
Tina Joemat-Pettersson (GCIS)

Police arrested 54-year-old Alfred Thompson for being "drunk in public" in Vredendal, the Western Cape, on October 2, 2016.

It was recorded in the Independent Police Investigative Directorate's (IPID) register that Thompson "did not wake up" when officers came to release him the next morning, Viewfinder reports.

According to the register, Thompson died in hospital soon after. Three weeks later, an IPID investigator changed the case's status from "active" to "complete" on the case management system.

There was just one problem: the investigation was not complete. The case file was missing a compulsory document on which the completion of any "death in police custody" investigation hinges - a post-mortem report.

In May the following year, the Auditor General of South Africa (AGSA) alerted IPID head office to this fact. IPID Western Cape head Thabo Leholo admitted the "error" and said the case worker had established that Thompson had sustained injuries before he was detained. IPID later included the post-mortem report in the case file. 

Sidestepping compulsory procedures

The case demonstrates IPID investigators may bring cases to "completion" while sidestepping compulsory procedures. In theory, the "completed" status means that a "quality investigation" was done. Such cases should then be handed over to prosecutors for a "decision" to prosecute the police officers involved or not. As such, completed cases are also known as "decision ready". 

In Thompson's case, the investigator approved the "completion" of a case in which he was also the case worker. This is prohibited by procedural safeguards.

Last month, Viewfinder published whistle blower reports, and other evidence, which showed that such shortcuts were systemic, widespread across South Africa and had evolved over many years. The practice amounted to obstruction of justice for victims of violent crimes by police officers such as rape, torture, assault and killings. These victims are often from poor and vulnerable communities.

IPID was due to present its response at a meeting with Parliament's portfolio committee on policing last week. The committee is chaired by Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

But instead, IPID discussed an internal investigation that focused on a relatively small sample of cases.

Management acknowledged these cases, dubbed "special closures", were tainted by claims of fraud and manipulation. But there was no reference to allegations that "decision-ready" cases - like the one of Thompson's death in custody - were also manipulated.

When challenged on this omission, IPID's national head of investigations, Matthews Sesoko, implored the committee to trust in the directorate's reported performance of "decision-ready" cases. He said the Auditor General, Kimi Makwetu, vetted these performance statistics and, as such, they were accurate.

Viewfinder has established Makwetu does not look at all the case files that IPID report as "decision ready". Year-on-year, he will only analyse samples from select provinces.

'Overstatement of decision-ready cases'

Viewfinder has reviewed his findings on IPID's statistics for 2016/17. He warns of a potential "overstatement of decision-ready cases" and concludes "management should revisit the entire population of decision-ready cases and ensure corrections" to avoid overstating performance statistics.

IPID did not respond to Viewfinder's queries as to whether it complied with this recommendation. But, with 3 449 case files in the "entire population of decision-ready cases", compliance seems unlikely.

Makwetu also warned cases described as decision-ready might not meet "the requirements as per standard operating procedures" because all the necessary evidence might not have been obtained. This might also result in an overstatement of performance, the Auditor-General concluded.

Viewfinder's first article exposed one such "decision-ready" case. The 2015 death of 17-year-old Austin Goliath in a Piketberg police cell was included in performance statistics. Yet, compulsory documentation was outstanding.

IPID management has been aware of the whistle blower reports published by Viewfinder for years. Some whistle blowers alleged management encouraged the manipulation of the data in a scramble to meet statistical report deadlines.

Improved performance a 'blatant lie'

This year, former executive director Robert McBride told the Zondo commission reports of improved performance at IPID during his suspension in 2015 and 2016 were a "blatant lie". 

However, IPID management confirmed to the committee last week the investigation into the period of McBride's suspension had not extended to "decision-ready" cases. IPID management did not tackle findings that statistical manipulation was systemic, and widespread across South Africa. Instead, the presentation focused on a relatively small sample of cases that were, according to whistle blowers, fraudulently closed.

Some members of the committee picked up on this omission. The DA's Andrew Whitfield asked why this internal investigation had only looked at a select number of "closed" cases and not at "decision-ready" cases. Whitfield pointed to IPID's main performance target: a quantitative measure of "decision-ready" cases.

This, he said, might have created an "unintended incentive to push through" poorly investigated cases to "decision-ready" status.

Despite this and calls from other MPs for an independent investigation into the cover-up, committee chairperson Joemat-Pettersson indicated she would not take direct action to hold IPID accountable.

However, despite the narrow scope, IPID reported the investigation had indeed uncovered cases that were closed without proper investigation. This is a break with IPID's former position: that management had seen "no evidence" of statistical manipulation during the 2015/16 financial year.

In a recent written response to questions, Joemat-Pettersson said the committee was "happy" with IPID's presentation, and it would "periodically update the committee on the progress of the investigation and impact of intervention measures". The specifics of these "intervention measures" remain unclear.  

To date, IPID management has ignored queries from Viewfinder. Joemat-Pettersson also failed to respond to a request for an interview for her to elucidate why she thinks the committee need not take direct action in relation to the cover-up at IPID.

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